Pete Townshend is apparently goin' mobile these days. The Broadway version of the Who's groundbreaking opera, Tommy – which Townshend collaborated on with Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff – will officially open at the St. James Theater on April 22nd, with previews beginning on March 29th.
The pair first staged Tommy last summer in an acclaimed production at the La Jolla Playhouse, in California. Always one of rock's most intelligently introspective figures, Townshend spoke of Tommy and his promising new work in progress – a concept album entitled Psychoderelict – as well as the status of his relationship with Roger Daltrey.
Have you been as involved with the Broadway production as you were in La Jolla?
If anything, I've been a bit more involved because this time around I had input in the casting. For La Jolla, Des and I worked for about six weeks on getting the book right. It was a matter of making changes where necessary, reconsidering the order of songs – things like that. That involved a number of trips. Then I simply went for the technical rehearsals to check out the music. For Broadway, I've been involved right from the ground up, which has meant a great deal of traveling back and forth for me.
Are you excited by the idea of a Broadway opening?
I'm terribly jaded about everything in life except children. So, no, it's not a great thrill. I'm looking forward to it, sure, but I'm also very cool about it. I'm also fairly pragmatic, and I know that Broadway is a dangerous place in many respects for a project like Tommy.
Will there be more of an emphasis on spectacle for Broadway?
The first act is very similar to the La Jolla show. Where we thought we needed work was in the second act. We thought that Tommy's mother and father needed better characterization. We also felt that with Tommy himself we'd kind of swallowed up one of the main issues of the original story: Who was responsible in the end for the betrayal of the fans or the disciples? Was it just Uncle Ernie and the Camp Commandant, or was Tommy himself responsible? Whereas in the first production, I felt Tommy was culpable but not guilty. In the Broadway production we've made Tommy really thrill his audience more. We show much more of his rise and prominence.
So Tommy's more of a rock star this time?
Des says that for him the pinball scenario is really a metaphor for rock & roll, and that's something we elaborated on now. So there is a bit more spectacle and excitement in the second act, but apart from that it's a very similar show.
The title role is being played by Michael Cerveris, who also starred in the La Jolla production. Was there any pressure to cast a name star?
There was a certain amount of pressure for that, and we considered looking at or talking to any stars who were interested. But we both really wanted Michael from the start. There were a few sniffs from people in rock and pop, but really when it comes down to it, the prospect of going onto Broadway and being paid $50,000 a week to do eight shows is not a prospect that the modern wanky little pop star thinks he wants.
Has working on the show taught you anything new about Tommy?
Yes, I think it did. I feel like the story that I've been writing all these years for Roger to sing, and later for myself to sing, has a running narrative. It's the story of a kid from Shepherd's Bush who emerges at the age of fifteen in the shape of the boy who sang our first record, "I Can't Explain," and went on to be personified as the hero in Quadrophenia. That voice has appeared in several guises over the years and continues to haunt my work. I'm not doing a Madonna here – I'm not saying it was all just an act. I'm just saying if there was a through line there, it was that I was writing for this voice. What's strange is that I always thought that Tommy was the exception to that. And when I sat down with Des, I realized that rather than being the exception to all that, Tommy was actually the pinnacle of it.
The spiritual metaphor I used – being deaf, dumb and blind, equating to our spiritual ignorance – also equates to the social isolation of young people crawling out of adolescence. That gave me a new way of looking at the story of Tommy. I was able to look at Tommy as a real person for a change, rather than a figment of my Meher Baba-Sufi spiritual inclinations at the time. I'm not saying Tommy was autobiographical, but I was able to write an ending because I saw myself in the role. It all came into focus.
Are you surprised by how relevant Tommy still is?
No, I'm really not. I've always addressed and acknowledged child abuse, the neglect of children, the misunderstanding of adolescence. I've seen those as shades of the rock & roll story. The first song in which I addressed it was "I'm a Boy," but it's always been there.
Have your recent experiences with Tommy informed Psychoderelict?
It has to an extent, but it's not Tommy II. Psychoderelict is a story with actors reading dialogue over, between and under songs. See, the thing I've missed terribly since the Who is context. The Who was terrific for that – it had tremendous color and melodrama. And whenever the press addressed the relationship I had with Roger Daltrey, it always returns to that old context, our version of the Glimmer Twins angle. You know, one is the good old boy who gets out there and sings, and one is the oddball who sits in the background and fucks things up.
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